Uralic/Altaic linguistics and Sovietology

The cover of David C. Engerman's book Know Your EnemyI recently picked up David C. Engerman’s Know Your Enemy: The Rise and Fall of America’s Soviet Experts (Oxford University Press, 2009) hoping that it would have some coverage of scholarship at Indiana University, Bloomington in the second half of the 20th century. Because they were able to sell their studies of Uralic and Altaic languages as part of Soviet areal studies, these linguists were able to draw funding from the patriotic-minded Ford Foundation, the US Department of the Air Force (usually acknowledged in the preface of the book) or from various “three-letter agencies” (acknowledged only decades later).

In that respect, the book was something of a disappointment. The sole real mention of study of Uralic and Altaic languages consists of the following paragraph (p. 81) on wider areal studies themes:

Indiana University, too, had established programs in Russian and Eastern European studies before the arrival of Ford and NDEA funds. It had begun its area programs with the Army Specialized Training Program (ASTP) in 1942; its principal task was to cover Eastern Europe from Finland to Turkey, offering courses in Finnish, Polish, Czech, Hungarian, Serbo-Croatian, Albanian, and Russian. After the war, the ASTP group, led by linguist Thomas Sebeok, was reconstitued as a program in Uralic and Altaic studies. Soon thereafter, the university hired its first full-time Russian professor, who was assigned to the French Department until the creation of a multidisciplinary Department of Slavic Studies in 1949. The arrival of historian Robert Byrnes in 1956 soon led to a struggle between the Department of Slavic Studies and the Uralic/Altaic studies program for control over an underfunded Institute of East European Studies. The end result was that Uralic/Altaic studies went off on its own; Sebeok soon focused more on semiotics than regional studies. Before long, NDEA grants supported both centers—though the Russian/Eastern Europe center, led by Byrnes and then William Edgeron, had substantially more support.

On the other hand, passages like this seem to me to capture a feeling of working with this area that hasn’t changed with the transition from the USSR to the Russian Federation:

There were few Sovietologists who held the same love for their subject country as scholars specializing in, say, English literature, European history, or African cultures. While the experience of extended work in the USSR was crucial to success in the field, it was rarely something to be relished until it was in the past tense.

The curious case of the Ural-Altaische Jahrbücher

The journal Ural-Altaische Jahrbücher was cited a great deal in my early studies of Turkic historical linguistics, but the particular papers were from the 1960s or early 1970s, and I had to request the individual issue from closed stacks, so I never got any view of what happened to the journal later. Visiting another university library where the volumes are conveniently shelved together for perusal reveals a curious turn.

The Ural-Altaische Jahrbücher had been edited by Gyula Décsy of Bloomington in the late 1970s and published by Harrassowitz. A sudden break comes in 1981, when there appear two journals with this name. One continues to edited by Décsy but now published out of Bloomington under the publisher name Eurolingua. The other, taken up by Harrassowitz, was now titled Ural-Altaische Jahrbücher, Neue Folge and edited by a team of other linguists in Europe.

In the first volume of the “Neue Folge” journal, the editors claim that the Ural-Altaische Jahrbücher had been meant to contain the minutes of the Societas Uralo-Altaica, but this had not happened for many years. The “Neue Folge” went on being published with papers from major European scholars (mostly in German with some English) and seems to still be going strong. The last volume on the shelf is 2012/2013.

The Décsy Ural-Altaische Jahrbücher lacks any mention of the Societas Uralo-Altaica. It continued to be published through the 1980s, though without the sublime typesetting of Harrassowitz and evidencing a visible decline in the quality of submissions. A few “big names” appear from time to time, but these are mainly elderly American linguists. The contributions are almost entirely in English. In 1993, the Décsy journal changed its name to Eurasian Studies Yearbook, explaining on the first page that the original name was too old-fashioned now and no one would posit a genetic relationship between Uralic and Altaic (or even an Altaic family). The last issue of the Eurasian Studies Yearbook appeared in 2009, prepared before Décsy had died in 2008 at the age of 83.

What happened to cause this rift? I assume there was some personal drama involved. In all my years of study, Décsy’s name came up only once, and the lecturer in question said only that he was a mediocre linguist. Was Décsy cantankerous or dotty? Or was this a matter of broader communication difficulties between American linguists and European ones? As most of the personalities involved are no longer with us, I hope someone will come forth to explain the whole story.

Should you wish to practice Evenki…

Whenever a minority language of Russia has come to my attention, my first question is, where could go to actually learn the language, i.e. where will people actually answer you in the language and not in Russian.

For Evenki, I suppose I got an answer to that question in Lenore Grenoble’s “Language vitality and revitalization in the Arctic” in New Perspectives on Endangered Languages ed. Flores Farfán & Ramallo (Amsterdam: John Benjamins, 2010). While writing on educational policy, she mentions:

In addition, the problems of a small town like Tura (population 5616 of which approximately 1000 are Evenki), or perhaps more poignantly of the two Evenki villages with the highest ratio of Evenki, Surunda (total population 478, of which 475 are Evenki) and Ekonda (total population 257, of which 243 are Evenki), easily appear insignificant to an admini­stration struggling with the problems of a much larger population.

Unfortunately, Ekonda and Surinda/Khuringda (more common names for the village) are in the middle of nowhere, with no roads leading to them. Though Evenki is also spoken further south in Buryatia, I suppose the settlements there too are utterly cut off from ground transportation. It’s not a surprise for a population of reindeer herders, but something of a disappointment for anyone who thought he could hear the language while casually travelling in Siberia.

I’m very grateful that in choosing to focus on Mari etc., I can enjoy language practice in less than 48 hours leisurely hitchhiking from Helsinki, instead of something that requires a massive investment in air or steamboat transportation. Still, I do envy colleagues who can recount awe-inspiring helicopter journeys over taiga when the only memorable experiences on my trips are traffic jams on the M7.

Phantom linguistics publications

It is frustrating when one is alerted by catalogues to books on language that were never actually published.

Routledge’s Language Family Surveys series now covers most of the major language groups of the world. However, the announced volume on the Manchu-Tungusic languages, said to be edited by Alexander Vovin, never appeared even though it worked its way into the Helsinki University Library catalogue (on order) and Amazon. I hear that Vovin is still working on this, but it will appear from a different publisher.

Another phantom publication is Teach Yourself Yiddish, a book that was meant to appear in 2009 and compete with the new edition of rival Routledge’s Colloquial Yiddish, a book which very much exists. Supposedly authored by Chaim Nelsen and Barry Davis, Teach Yourself Yiddish never did appear, in spite of also being announced at Amazon complete with ISBN.